After one month of intensive learning and training – I was a fully qualified certified Private Pilot. Able to leave my shackles behind and see the world entirely at my own discretion, flying high above the stresses of every-day life, rolling countryside passing by with no one around.
I then did nothing with this amazing opportunity. My pilots licence was lost in a drawer, went invalid, my slide ruler turning pale yellow full of cracks. I did no flying at all. FOR TWENTY THREE YEARS.
‘You are losing height John, make a decision – WHERE ARE WE GOING TO LAND, NOW!?’
Captain Stuart Morton in my ears. 60 feet above a green field heading for the ground. ‘Too high, too high, go around, go around full power, get us out of here’. Failed. I pushed the throttle in, pointed the nose into the sky and we flew off to another full-on challenge. ‘Engine failure on take-off, where are we going. NOW?!’ Captain Stuart had cut the power immediately on climbing. Trees, cows, fences, god knows what. Weakly I offer ‘we are landing there’. ‘Not good John, not good. Full power, lose the flaps when we are in a definite climb’. Tut tut tut.
This was stress to the max. No less than six forced landings in the last few minutes. I was tired and it was not working. Last night’s three beers were now clearly a very very very bad idea. ‘Can we go home Stuart please? I’ve had enough.’ I get a disgruntled acknowledgement and climb to 2500 feet heading back to the aerodrome.
I am on the last day of an intensive one-to-one flying course in deepest France. Forced landings, falling out of the sky stalls, engine fires, MAYDAY calls and gliding into international airports with no power at all are all part of the curriculum of becoming a pilot. Fail any of these, you can’t fly, goodbye.
‘Listen mate – this is not a test. You are learning to save yours and other people’s lives. This is the most important lesson of the lot’ Stuart blurted.
Tomorrow I was to take my Private Pilots Proficiency Test. I had a lesson of more forced landings and stalls booked in and a ‘mock exam’ booked for twelve that morning.
We did more stalling, flying through a huge hole in a cumulus cloud which closed slowly around us. If ‘Trainspotting 2’ used clouds, it would look like this. Worm Hole. Surreal. Dwarfed by glowing white. The lesson improves as I glide into a peaceful non-powered landing on an 8,000 foot runway, difficult to miss if you were in a Space Shuttle. Wow, that was really kalma! I have not done that in over twenty three years! There’s only one chance in a glide.
At twelve as planned Captain Stuart Morton interrupts my wet grass power nap behind the flying club house, big grin on his face. ‘John – Phillipe is ready for you mate. It’s your exam.’
Stuart had tricked me. The planned mock exam was in fact the real one.
I got in the tiny aeroplane, slowed down, took my time, get rid of those nerves, get rid of those nerves. We flew off into gigantic plumes of cotton wool, was told to climb, stall, fly slow, low, high, over here, over there, avoid the clouds, engine failure here, engine failure there, circle here, land in which field? Yes, good. Stay calm, stay calm, landing flaps not working, land it please, take off again, you have an engine fire, where are we landing? Okay, okay...
‘You have engine failure’ as the engine is cut dead. ‘Is this a forced landing?’ ‘Oui.’ This time I look around left and right, behind and forward. Take your time, take your time, preparation is everything, take fifteen seconds …‘we land in that massive field over there’ pointing to a ginormous freshly ploughed beauty. Gliding in I make dummy emergency calls and prepare to land beside the still waters of a lake. It’s clear we are going to make it this time and I’m told to fly back to base. My hands relax on the control stick and my knuckles turn from white to red.
Thirty minutes later there is a dramatic pause in the cockpit as the propeller shudders stop.
‘It was a good flight’ Phillipe says to Captain Morton, my instructor. Pause. ‘Yes, it was a good flight’.
‘Have I passed?’
‘Try to land in the middle of the runway …. and not so heavy with the landing please, you were too high.’
‘Oh, and yes, you have passed.’
These examiners know all about dramatic effect.
After twenty three years, I was a pilot again! This time I had better get flying.
All photos by Stuart Morton.